As the winter weather very slowly descends on Southwest Colorado it leaves more time to get geared up for the snow and the dropping temperatures. While many people have garages full of sports equipment, it's the basic clothing that keeps you comfortable and safe for all your outdoor activities.
Outdoor clothing is a multi-million dollar industry but getting your personal winter outdoor wardrobe doesn't have to break the bank. A little knowledge of how winter clothing works can go a long way toward finding what you have and what you need to be warm, dry and safe this winter.
Warmth - Remember that clothing is not warm, your body is warm. Clothing is just a way to regulate your body's temperature within the small range that it functions. Be versatile and diligent in keeping your body's temperature from getting too cold or too warm during activity. It is much easier and safer to regulate than to recover.
Cotton kills - Despite the cliché, cotton really is the worst fabric to wear for outdoor activity in winter weather. It gets wet, stays wet, and can keep you dangerously cold in a short period of time. If you're going to be active outside in the cold or wet don't wear it at all. This goes for everything - base layers, socks, gloves, hat, jacket, everything.
Layer Up - There are three basic layers to a cold weather clothing system: base layer, insulation and shell. These can be used in any combination depending on the conditions and level of exertion. It is always handy to have all three layers available on an outdoor excursion in order to better deal with changing conditions and levels of exercise.
Base layer - Consider this not only long underwear but also socks, hat and gloves. Anything that goes against your skin should be a quick-drying synthetic or wool.
Insulation - This is the most variable layer. It can be left off if it's warm or you are working harder, or it can be big and bulky if it is below zero and you are not very active. It can also be multiple layers to increase versatility. Synthetic fleece or down are great lightweight insulation layers. In general, bulk equals warmth. So a wool shirt is warm, a fleece jacket is warmer, and a down coat is warmest.
The insulation layer is usually the layer that is added or subtracted during the course of an activity. Put it on as you are getting ready at the trailhead and take it off fifteen minutes up the trail when your body has warmed up. Carry a small pack that can hold this layer, plus your hat and glove insulation. It is rare to swap leg and foot layers unless you are going to be out all day or overnight.
It is very important to note that the base layer and shell layer are designed for ventilation and moisture control, but the insulation layer generally is not. Don't let your insulation get wet or sweaty. If it is raining or snowing, cover it up. If you are sweating, take it off or ventilate your shell. Consider your insulation layer to be your emergency heat trap. Make sure it doesn't get compromised.
Shell - Your outermost layer (hood, jacket, gloves, pants, boots) is your protection from the elements. It should keep the snow, wind and rain completely away from your other layers without holding moisture from the inside. In order to do this the shell layer should vent, breathe or work as a vapor barrier. It is important to know how your shell works best before venturing into a difficult situation.
All of this information leads to the next step in the gearing up process: gear testing. This is, of course, the fun part where you get to go outside into the weather and see how your different systems, combinations and features work. Start small, maybe just a walk around the block or chopping wood, but pay careful attention to how your particular pieces of clothing work together. If you have questions check the internet, or better yet, ask one of the professionals at your local outdoor store. And then go outside and test some more.
Mark Winkworth is the San Juan Mountains Association Visitor Information Specialist. SJMA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) dedicated to public land stewardship and education. SJMA partners with the San Juan National Forest, BLM Tres Rios Field Office and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, BLM, in addition to other organizations in SW Colorado.